PSD wins sentencing appeal based on trial court’s refusal to address defendant’s entitlement to acceptance-of-responsibility adjustment to Sentencing Guidelines calculation.

On April 1, 2015, the First Circuit ruled in favor of PSD’s client on a sentencing appeal concerning whether the client was entitled to a third acceptance-of-responsibility point for purposes of his Sentencing Guidelines calculation. Represented by other counsel at the trial level, the defendant had pleaded guilty before the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico without any written plea agreement with the government. The trial court found that the defendant was entitled to a two-point reduction in his Sentencing Guidelines calculation for his acceptance of responsibility. The government refused, however, to file a motion for a third acceptance-of-responsibility point because the defendant had not entered into a written plea agreement, despite the fact that he pled guilty to the crime as charged. The prosecutor explained that because of the lack of a written agreement that resolved factual issues relevant to sentencing, the government did not save expenses related to “trial” preparations, and thus would not move for the third point.  The trial court judge held that pursuant to Sentencing Guidelines § 3E1.1(b), he had no discretion to consider granting a third point for acceptance of responsibility in the absence of a government motion.

On appeal, PSD argued for the defendant that the trial judge erred as a matter of law, as the trial court was required to assess whether the government’s refusal to file a motion was based on improper grounds. As PSD pointed out, not only did the government improperly condition the motion for a third point on the defendant’s willingness to enter into a written plea agreement, but the prosecutor also refused to discuss potential stipulations with defense counsel to resolve any open factual issues for sentencing.

The First Circuit agreed with PSD that it was error for the trial court to refuse to consider whether the prosecution’s withholding of a motion was proper. Accepting PSD’s argument, the First Circuit held that “once the appellant raised a claim that the government withheld its section 3E1.1(b) motion for an improper reason, he was entitled to have the district court resolve this point.” As a result, the First Circuit remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that the trial court vacate the sentence and conduct a new sentencing hearing.

The case is United States v. Melendez-Rivera, First Circuit Case No. 13-2136. The defendant-appellant was represented on appeal by PSD’s Joshua Solomon and Matthew Arnould.